film reviews

Isabelle Huppert: World’s greatest actor

The French star vaults to the top ranks with recent performances in "Elle" and "Things to Come."

May as well just say it: Isabelle Huppert is the best screen actor working in the world today.

To support this somewhat bold contention, I present two pieces of compelling evidence, both showing in Portland theaters right now.

One, “Things to Come,” is, in outline, a fairly ordinary middlebrow drama. It centers on a French high school philosophy teacher (yes, they have those in France) whose orderly life is upended on numerous fronts. The health of her elderly mother (played by screen icon Edith Scob) is failing; she discovers that her husband her been unfaithful to her; and her career momentum stalls. We’ve seen this sort of midlife-crisis, “I Am Woman” story in the past–remember all those Jill Clayburgh movies?–but what elevates “Things to Come” is Huppert’s smooth, lived-in performance, which manages to communicate a controlled facade and a rich interior life without resorting to anything resembling acting (at least as we’re used to seeing it in Hollywood dramas).

Isabelle Huppert (Nathalie) and Roman Kolinka (Fabien) in Mia Hansen-Løve’s THINGS TO COME

The director of “Things to Come” is Mia Hansen Love, who based the main character on her own mother. Hansen Love, making her fifth feature, is part of a new generation of French female filmmakers who are demonstrating the wide range of stories women can contribute when allowed to infiltrate the typically male-dominated industry. And Huppert’s appearance in her movie is something of a stamp of approval, placing her in the ranks of other greats the actress has graced with her inimitable talents.

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FIlmWatch Weekly: “Arrival” and the importance of intelligent escapism

The new Amy Adams-Jeremy Renner sci-fi film offers both distraction from dark days and inspiration for those beyond

As the country continues to step gingerly through the looking glass into a world that’s more unrecognizable and intimidating than many Americans could have imagined, there are two types of films that can help the disoriented and the dismayed.

One type is the social-issue drama, exemplified by Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” which tells the true story of interracial couple Mildred and Richard Loving. Their ACLU-funded legal fight against the Virginia law that made their union illegal ended with the Supreme Court’s judgment that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional and that marriage is a fundamental civil right. The film doesn’t open until November 18, so a full review will have to wait until next week, but the Lovings are real-world reminders of that fact that justice may be deferred (in their case, until 1967) but it can never be forever denied.

Of course, movies also offer opportunities for escapism, a necessity for mental health maintenance in trying times. But cheap escapism, whether in the form of car chases and gun battles or pratfalls and raunchy jokes, won’t really do the trick. When I need both inspiration and distraction, I look for entertainment that engages with my intellect and my emotions, and tosses in some visual pizzazz when it can.

Amy Adams (right) as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures

Amy Adams (right) as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures

Which brings me to “Arrival,” the biggest and best film opening in Portland this post-election weekend. It’s a science-fiction story about the first contact between humanity and a race of mysterious extraterrestrials. But it’s about the furthest thing from the drive-in laser-blast concussions of something like “Independence Day.” It’s a hard film to describe too fully without ruining its surprises (something its marketing has done a good job of avoiding), but with a brilliant, female, nonsexualized linguist as its hero, a story that requires you to reimagine the way the universe works, and a resolution in which, it’s fair to say, love trumps hate, “Arrival” has, um, arrived at just the right time.

We learn in the opening scenes that Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has experienced the loss of a child. (This will be important later.) When 12 enormous, black, concave structures suddenly appear at various spots around the globe, hovering a few meters off the ground, she is summoned by the military—specifically, one Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker)—to lead the communication effort at one such site in Montana. Banks is paired with a physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and before you can say “beam me up,” they’ve entered the thing and started trying to figure out how to talk to its inhabitants.

In typical genre fashion, it’s a race against time: other teams around the world are trying the same thing, and some (notably the Chinese) take a more aggressive tone. The American military, too, is just waiting, finger on the trigger, for the first sign that the visitors are a threat. As in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” it’s up to one principled individual to ensure that the most momentous event in human history doesn’t end in cataclysmic destruction.

Yes, there are aliens, ingeniously designed on both a physical and cultural (for lack of a better term) level. There are snazzy, gravity-defying special effects, but they never overwhelm the human elements. And there are those terrible hazmat suits that actors always have to wear in these kinds of movies, but they’re dispensed with before too long.

The plot, based on a novella called “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, is almost impossible to describe beyond what I said above without eroding the movie’s appeal. I’ll just say that it was intricate and surprising enough that I immediately ordered a copy of the book that contains it. The director is Denis Villeneuve, who made the accomplished, but dark, drug-war thriller “Sicario,” and before that, the intense, even darker, child-abduction thriller “Prisoners.” With that resume, you might go into “Arrival” expecting a downbeat, even nihilistic ending to this cosmic encounter. My only spoiler alert: You’d be wrong. You’ll likely leave “Arrival” with a slightly more hopeful vision for the future of humanity, which these days is a significant blessing.

And if you don’t like the movie, at least you spent two hours in a dark room with your smartphone turned off. Which may be an even more significant blessing.

(“Arrival” opens November 11 in theaters nationwide.)

Also happening this week in Portland theaters:

 

The 43rd Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival continues through Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the Whitsell Auditorium and other sites downtown. It’s a cinematic and social feast for anyone keeping an eye on regional moviemaking. I ran down the highlights for OregonLive here.

The idea of time travel seems to be in the zeitgeist, whether people wish they could go back to Monday, Nov. 7 or some other era. James Gleick’s new book “Time Travel: A History,” offers a rambling cultural history of the concept, which was essentially invented by author H.G. Wells in “The Time Machine.” The 1960 big-screen adaptation starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux screens on Friday, Nov. 11, at the Hollywood Theatre. Meanwhile (whatever that means…), Terry Gilliam’s whimsical tale about history-hopping little people and the boy who joins them, “Time Bandits,” plays all week at the Laurelhurst Theater.

The documentary “Peter and the Farm” profiles a Vermont organic farmer whose hard-drinking exterior and punk-rock attitude belie his deep attachment to his land and his skepticism about the future of the planet. It plays Saturday, Nov. 12, at the Hollywood Theatre.

 

FilmWatch Weekly: Vanessa Renwick, “Tower,” and “Valley of the Dolls”

Vanessa Renwick's new work, a documentary about a 50-year-old mass shooting, and a pair of camp classics on discs.

The screening of  Vanessa Renwick’s new program of short films has been scheduled for either the perfect night or the worst possible one.

On Monday, November 7, aka Election Eve, Renwick will present “Do You See What I See? No.,” which includes her deadpan, despairing take on modern life, “Next Level Fucked Up.” The 15-minute piece debuted as part of a multimedia installation at the Portland Art Museum earlier this year. It was inspired by Renwick’s increasing dismay at the relentless onslaught of negative media stories and images, on scales ranging from the local to the global.

Harbor Seal pup wearing a plastic id disk attached to its head, from Vanessa Renwick's "Next Level Fucked Up."

Harbor Seal pup wearing a plastic id disk attached to its head, from Vanessa Renwick’s “Next Level Fucked Up.”

The targets of the filmmaker’s wrath include people who bag up their dog’s poop but discard the bag on the sidewalk, Portland’s rampant gentrification, the force-feeding of baby seals, and the agribusiness giant Monsanto. It’s a scattershot but effective litany that collectively gets at the sense of apocalyptic anxiety many of us have been feeling during the last several months. Depending on how things go on Tuesday, “Next Level Fucked Up” may be a snapshot of existential anguish circa 2016, or (shudder) a reminder of the good old days.

Also showing are two new shorts by Renwick. “Strabismus,” which takes its title from the medical term for crossed eyes, recounts the filmmaker’s experience with ocular surgery, while “Eclipse” returns to one of her favorite subjects, wolves. Between the films, musicians who contributed to “Next Level Fucked Up”–Sam Coomes, Michael Hurley, and Marisa Anderson–will perform.

(“Do You See What I See? No.” screens at 7pm on Monday, November 7th, at the Hollywood Theatre.)

On August 1, 1966, gunshots rang out from the 27th-floor observation deck of the clock tower in the middle of the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. It was one of the first spree shootings in U.S. history, and certainly the first to make an immediate impact through mass media. The documentary “Tower” is, amazingly enough, the first feature-length fact-based film about the shootings, in which 14 people were killed and another 32 injured.

The perpetrator, Charles Whitman, isn’t the focus of director Keith Maitland’s movie. In fact, his name isn’t mentioned until nearly the end. Instead, Maitland uses animated recreations of the experiences of victims, using their own words, to take us through that traumatic day. Alternating between the animation and actual archival footage creates a fascinating dichotomy between documentary realism and the sort of dissociation that comes from looking back on a nightmarish experience.

These days, sadly, we know exactly how to respond emotionally when we hear about another mass murder involving firearms. Part of what’s fascinating about “Tower” is the way it takes us back to a time when random gun violence on this scale was simply unimaginable. The movie also serves as a potent reminder of the heroism that can emerge from utterly ordinary individuals at time like these. Altogether, it’s a remarkable and overdue piece of work.

(“Tower” opens Friday, November 4, at the Living Room Theaters)

As streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Itunes, and the brand-new FilmStruck (more on that next week) continue to proliferate, cinephiles would be well served to remember the permanence of physical media, namely DVDs and Blu-rays. And companies like The Criterion Collection (one of FilmStruck’s backers) continue to release some pretty impressive products.

Criterion’s recent releases include one of the best potential double features of all time: 1967’s camp classic “The Valley of the Dolls,” and its utterly warped pseudo-sequel from 1970, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” The former, of course, is based on Jacqueline Susann’s mega-selling novel about three young women who aspire to show-business stardom but find unhappiness and addiction instead. Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, and Patty Duke star, with Tate astonishingly wooden and Duke an over-the-top dynamo.

The film was one of many awkward attempts by studios, specifically 20th Century Fox, to cater to a youth audience, and it pushed boundaries by referring to things like drugs and abortion, and using profanities like “bitch.” Despite terrible reviews, it was enough of a hit for Fox to pursue a sequel, and they made the astonishing decision to hire softcore savant Russ Meyer (“Vixen”) to direct it. Meyer brought in then-fledgling film critic Roger Ebert to write the screenplay, and the rest is history.

It’s indicative of the rapid evolution (or erosion, depending on your perspective) of Hollywood screen standards that, in order to match the boundary-pushing of the original, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” had to go much further–nudity, transvestism, constant drug use, and a storyline that goes all over the place.

Both of these Criterion release feature a bevy of special features. Parkins and entertainment journalist Ted Casablanca (who took his nom de plume from a character in the film) make their gossipy way through an audio commentary on “Valley,” while Ebert speaks from beyond the grace in a commentary (originally recorded in 2003) for “Beyond.” In addition, each features so many cast and crew interviews, retrospective documentaries, premiere footage, and other tributes to satisfy any fan. While these aren’t exactly the sort of films you expect to find in the Criterion Collection, but they’re among the most fun.

(“Valley of the Dolls” and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” are available on Blu-ray for $39.95 each and DVD for $29.95 each)

The best Halloween film fright: the Iranian-set chiller “Under the Shadow”

A supernatural menace loose in war-torn 1980s Tehran might be the scariest thing on theater screens this weekend

When they’re good, horror movies can be, pardon the phrase, scary good. The problem is sorting out the wheat from the chaff. They’re easy to make—just set a gaggle of hapless, horny teens loose in a spooky forest or abandoned house and you’re pretty much set. But they’re extremely hard to make well, and, to be honest, horror audiences sometimes aren’t the most discriminating of fans.

That’s why it’s helpful each year when Halloween comes around and cinema screens are awash in bloody (or just merely creepy) revivals. These titles are time-tested and fright-fan approved, and almost always more fun when seen with an appreciative crowd. Before we get to those, though, I want to spotlight what might be the best horror movie of 2016 (and, no, it’s not “Oujia: Origin of Evil,” although to be honest I haven’t seen “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and can’t imagine I will, so who knows…)

Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi in "Under the Shadow"

Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi in “Under the Shadow”

It’s called “Under the Shadow,” which, granted, is a pretty generic horror movie title. But nothing else about director Babak Anvari’s debut feature, which opens Friday at the Living Room Theaters, conforms to expectations. The movie is set in Tehran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. In an early scene, a woman named Shideh (Narges Rashidi) learns that, because of left-wing political activity during the Iranian Revolution, she will never be allowed to finish medical school. Back home, a frustrated Shideh spars with her husband and demonstrates impatience with her young daughter Dorsa.

When Shideh’s husband, a doctor, is called up for military service, he orders her to take Dorsa and flee the city, which is under frequent Iraqi missile attack. Fed up with being told what to do by men, she stays in their apartment, which is soon struck by a rocket and damaged.

That’s when things get interesting. Dorsa’s beloved doll goes missing, as does Shideh’s samizdat Jane Fonda workout videotape. The child blames invisible creatures she calls ‘djinn,’ and from here on out the movie shares some DNA with the 2014 Australian film “The Babadook.” Mom tries to figure out whether the kid is making stuff up, hallucinating, or actually engaging with some sort of supernatural badness. Things get creepier and more claustrophobic—the stultifying apartment block and perpetually cracked ceiling recall Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.”

By combining horror movie tropes with an explicit criticism of the repressive regime, Anvari makes you wonder exactly what the titular shadow is that Shideh must live under. (The film is actually a British-led multinational co-production, and was filmed in Jordan, since there’s no way the Iranian government would allow it to be shot in Tehran.) Anvari also makes excellent use of minimal special effects, imbuing duct tape and even a seemingly ordinary bed sheet with auras of real menace.

But back to those revivals. Tops on the list would be “Eraserhead,” David Lynch’s nightmarish ode to impending fatherhood and radiators. One wonders what his daughter Jennifer thinks of it. It’s screening in 35mm at the Northwest Film Center on Friday, October 28th. If one wanted to make a full weekend of frightful flicks, one might then return to the Whitsell Auditorium the following night for the classic 1962 ghost story “The Innocents,” which stars Deborah Kerr in an adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turning of the Screw.” On Sunday (and Saturday, in fact), the Hollywood Theatre has “Rosemary’s Baby” in 35mm, which makes a nice parental-anxiety bookend with “Eraserhead” if you think about it.

The most intriguing Halloween booking, though, comes on the night itself, as the Hollywood shows the 1981 Canadian B-movie “The Pit.” Having only seen the trailer for this one, I can say that it’s about a 12-year-old boy whose teddy bear commands him commit murders by tossing innocent people (including an old lady) into a monster-filled hole in the middle of the forest. It’s been accurately described as being shot like an after-school special, and appears to allow its juvenile protagonist to indulge in some pretty distasteful behavior, like trying to seduce his attractive babysitter.

If those choices aren’t sufficient, there’s always John Carpenter’s “Halloween” at the Academy Theater, the Swedish kid-vampire classic “Let the Right One In” at the Laurelhurst Theater, the 1982 version of “Cat People” with Malcolm McDowell and Natassja Kinski at PSU’s 5th Avenue Cinema, or the silent Lon Chaney version of “The Phantom of the Opera,” with live organ accompaniment, on Saturday afternoon at the Hollywood.

And if all that isn’t enough to send chills up your spine, next week is the election!

FILM IN BRIEF: Frank Zappa, “Weiner-Dog,” and more

Documentaries about a musical icon, an elderly Korean couple, and an autistic little boy, plus the latest dark comedy from director Todd Solondz

There’s an especially long lineup of films opening in Portland’s independent theaters, so here’s a brief rundown of notable movies not covered elsewhere:

 

“Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words”

Despite releasing several albums of instrumental music over his three-decade career, Frank Zappa was never at a loss for words. His songs that did have lyrics overflowed with rapid-fire verbiage, and his interviews and other public appearances were masterpieces of straightforward, uncensored truth-telling. The guy had one of the most sensitive bullshit detectors in history.

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FilmWatch Weekly: Jews, Geniuses, Raiders, and Devils

The 24th Portland Jewish Film Festival goes into high gear, a documentary examines the greatest fan film in history, and more!

24th Portland Jewish Film Festival: The Northwest Film Center once again provides cinematic proof of the diversity of Jewish culture, with films ranging from raunchy comedy to sober documentary to unsettling drama. (Northwest Film Center) READ MORE

“Genius”: This star-studded drama tells the story of editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and his collaboration with novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney co-star, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) pop in as well. (Regal Fox Tower) READ MORE

“Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made”: In 1982, three 11-year-old boys in Mississippi started making a shot-by-shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” They didn’t finish it for over thirty years. This is their story. (Hollywood Theater) READ MORE

Chantal Akerman: An ongoing series, schedule to run sporadically for the next year, pays tribute to the groundbreaking Belgian filmmaker who died in 2015. The first program in the series, a documentary about Akerman, plays this Friday. (Northwest Film Center) READ MORE

“Ma Ma”: Penelope Cruz brings all of her star power to bear on this Spanish melodrama about a single mom, diagnosed with breast cancer, who meets a man in the midst of his own struggle with tragic fate. (Living Room Theaters) READ MORE

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Home Movies: ‘Hail Caesar!,’ ‘Anomalisa,’ and more

Three of the best-reviewed films of the last few months are now available on home video.

Three of the best-reviewed films of the last few months debuted on disc this week, and they couldn’t be three more different movies. Predictably, only the one about the cartoon talking animals was a big hit in theaters.

“Hail Caesar!” has an exclamation point in its title for a reason. This high-energy, affectionate spoof of old Hollywood finds Joel and Ethan Coen in palate-cleansing slaphappy mode after the brilliant misanthropy of “Inside Llewyn Davis.” George Clooney stars as a thick-headed movie star who gets abducted by a mysterious band of leftist radicals, sending studio detective Josh Brolin on a wild goose chase through 1950s Tinseltown. Stars like Channing Tatum (in a Gene Kelly-esque dance number) and Scarlett Johansson (as an Esther Williams-esque aquatic actress) gamely chip in. Alden Ehrenreich (aka your new Han Solo) and Ralph Fiennes collaborate to make “Would that it were so simple” the most hilarious line of dialogue of the year. Perhaps not top-shelf Coen Brothers, but good enough to brighten an evening. ($29.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray, $4.99 online rental, $14.99 online purchase)

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